Thai 55's first location is hidden in the back of the market
2601 Broadway, San Diego
So ’t’other day my buddy Ernesto — Neto — and I met at this corner liquor store over the summit in Golden Hill for lunch. His idea.
“Uh, likker store?”
“Wait till you get inside,” he says.
We’re staring up at this brownish fifties-looking building with a yellow sign. “San Diego Market. Beer. Wine. Grocery. Check cashing. Cigars.”
But then I notice another smaller black and white sign.
“55 Thai Kitchen.”
Oh yes. They have a couple of tables outside. But Ernesto leads me in. Feel a little like intruders, but the Chaldean guy at the counter says to carry on. So we pass racks of groceries and liquor bottles, to — wow — this cozy little collection of tables and nooks and a counter, all squeezed in the back. Modest, but stylish, too. Cilantro-curry-peanut flavors waft out. Heck we could’ve just followed out noses and got here.
Clumps of arty and professional types eating away.
“They do the best curries,” Neto says.
The menu board’s nicely simplified for non-experts. I see they have a yellow curry and a green curry and a stir fry in their “plates” section. For eight bucks you can choose between veggies, tofu, and chicken for your protein, and for nine, beef, shrimp, or fish. And the good thing is, for no extra, you can choose two of these meaty things to put on your single order.
Half-eaten massaman curry
Hmm. On the other hand, I see a couple of other favorites. The massaman curry. I know this ain’t so “pet” (as the Thais say, meaning spicy-hot. Our language should have a word that means just that). Dish comes from the Thai Muslim (“massaman”) community in southern Thailand. So you’ve got coconut milk, potatoes, onions, fish paste, sugar and peanuts, bay leaves and probably cardamom pods and cinnamon in there too. And hey, let’s not forget chili and tamarind sauce. Maybe even a bit of star anise. All the reasons I love massaman curry if it’s done right.
“I’m going for drunken noodles,” says Neto. (Costs $8 or $9. Same deal on proteins.)
My tom yum soup: hot, hot, hot!
Me, I’m tempted by the ginger thing of the ginger stir fry ($8-9), but no. Massaman curry. And, now I spot it, I ain’t leaving this place without having my all-time favorite soup as well, the tom yum. Good price, too: $3.50 if you want it with veggies or tofu or chicken; $4.50 if you go for beef or shrimp or fish.
No contest. Tom yum is made for shrimp. Something about its hot-and-sour make-up, its lemon grass, lime, galangal, and of course nam pla, fish sauce.
And they say if you can get fresh water river shrimp — koong — it’s the best.
So I slurp into my beautiful tom yum, and Ernesto forks up his drunken noodles, and then, yum yum, massaman curry, brilliant with its golden potatoes and red and green peppers.
This is when Neto throws a curve.
“Right back,” he says.
Two minutes later, he appears with two plastic cups loaded with something foaming. “Drink up,” he says. Man! Can’t believe it. It’s Arrogant Bastard beer, not too cold. “Just grabbed a couple of cups,” he says.
And guess what? Tom yum, massaman and warmish AB, it’s a magic rounding out of all the tastes. They go together so-oo well. Oh man.
’Course this is when the guy comes around the corner. “Sir, can’t drink that. We’re not licensed, yet.”
Dang. But we ditch it. Don’t want them to get in trouble. “Didn’t realize,” says Ernesto, to the guy. “Pity,” he says, a moment later. “That was the perfect marriage.”
Joanie and Glenn at their jungle table
So this was Friday. Couple days later, I’m moseying down Broadway at 10th, and guess what? Here’s another 55 Thai Kitchen! It’s brand new. Oh yeah. Used to be a Himalayan place. I have to stop. The only thing I recognize is the ancient green mosaic floor-panel at the door: “Broadway Linoleum and Carpet Co.”
Inside looks tropical, with big-leaf planters, a slice of a huge sycamore tree trunk for the main table, and behind that, down by a long open kitchen, a live bamboo reaching up 25 feet, I swear, into a skylight. Couple sitting under its fluttery leaves is Joanie and Glenn. She’s got a tom kha, my other favorite Thai soup, like tom yum but with coconut milk. He’s eating a green curry.
Tom kha noodles
I go for the tom kha. Not the soup, but a noodle dish with chicken chunks on top ($8). Lots of fresh cilantro. It is sweet-savory delicious, and very filling.
Whitney with her green curry
Here at the sycamore table, a lady named Whitney has a bowl of green curry with chicken. Plus she’s taking drunken noodles to her husband, Jason. Turns out she’s a defense attorney. Works nearby. Lot of immigration cases. “This place is a godsend,” she says. “Broadway’s a food-desert around here.”
Sally, gal at the counter, says the owner, Vijit Pipatkhajonchai — “but everybody calls him Jit” — only recently opened here. “And he’s got another just opening at SDSU,” she says. “He wants people to have simple, good Thai food.”
Jit’s from Bangkok. Had his own restaurants there. Is specially proud of his massaman curry. Sally says he makes the curry from scratch, not from a commercial paste, like most places.
Thing I like is the simplicity. Two soups, a single salad, five noodle and rice dishes, a couple of curries, and his massaman curry dish. That’s pretty much it. All dishes are $8-9, or cheaper.
“So what’s with the name, ‘55 Thai’?” I ask as I’m heading out.
“It’s really a joke,” Sally says. “I’m not Thai, but the Thai word for ‘five’ is ‘ha.’ So, like, the ‘Ha-Ha’ Kitchen? Jit wants people to enjoy themselves. You might call it the ‘Laughing Café.’”